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What Causes UTIs?

April 4, 2024

Women sipping cranberry juice through a straw

If you’ve felt the painful, burning, urgent need to pee, you may be familiar with urinary tract infections (UTIs). UTIs are bacterial infections in the urinary tract that, while painful, are often simple to treat with quick action.

Nisha Bengali, MD, family medicine physician with Atlantic Health System, shares what causes UTIs, how to treat them and, most importantly, how to prevent them in the first place.

What Are UTIs?

UTIs are caused when the normal bacteria that lives and grows in the genital region overgrows or colonizes the area, which can lead to infections. The biggest culprits among these bacteria are E. Coli, but UTIs can be caused by other bacteria like Staphylococcus.

UTIs can be either simple or complicated. Simple UTIs are contained within the bladder walls and cause the familiar symptoms of frequent, urgent, burning and painful urination. Complicated UTIs, which are far less common, can travel up to the kidneys and other organs and lead to fever, chills and pain throughout the body. Left untreated, these UTIs can cause organ failure and sepsis.

Female patients are more prone to UTIs than men because, anatomically, the distance from the urethra to the anus is shorter and bacteria can make their way into the urinary tract easier. Others at greater risk of UTIs include:

  • Elderly patients: Changes in mental state, functional status and even recent falls might change hygiene habits and trigger a UTI.
  • Newly sexually active women: Intercourse can introduce new bacteria to the area, and using protection like spermicides and condoms can alter the pH around the genitals.
  • Patients taking certain medications: Medicine to treat diabetes and other conditions can change the pH around the urethra.
  • Post-menopausal women: The drop in estrogen after menopause can throw off the pH and bacterial balance around the urethra.
  • Pregnant women: Changes in hormones during pregnancy can make pregnant women more prone to UTIs. Left untreated, UTIs may pose a miscarriage risk to pregnant women.

How to Treat UTIs

Fortunately, acute, simple UTIs can be treated with a course of antibiotics. These treatments often begin relieving symptoms within a couple of days. If UTIs get more complicated, your doctor may still recommend antibiotics, but they will likely order more tests and you may be admitted to the hospital.

Patients can also take steps to prevent UTIs from occurring in the first place, including:

  • Practicing good hygiene, including cleansing after sex and wiping from front to back after using the bathroom
  • Staying hydrated which, for women with recurrent UTIs, includes drinking 2-3 liters of water per day
  • Taking cranberry products for symptomatic relief
  • Wearing cotton underwear, which is more breathable than alternatives

If you begin feeling symptoms of a UTI, it’s important to talk to your doctor right away.

“For patients experiencing a UTI for the first time, it’s best to see a provider as soon as possible,” says Dr. Bengali. “They will order a urine test to see what bacteria is growing before they start treatment to make sure they treat you appropriately with the right antibiotics. For patients with recurrent UTIs who know their symptoms, your provider may be able to treat you based on your previous course of care.”

Be Proactive About Your Health

To stay safe and healthy, it's good to have a primary care provider who knows and understands your health history and wellness goals.

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